What is a College Application “Spike”?


Kate Sliunkova

AdmitYogi, Stanford MBA & MA in Education



6 min read

What is a College Application “Spike”?


Wanna get into a top-notch college? Having a "spike" could boost your odds of getting in. While lower-tier schools take in lots of students who are good at different things, the fancier colleges are after students who've proven their skills and success in one specific area. These youngsters make the university look good, as they're more likely to shine in their field and succeed in the long run.

Colleges aren't always on the lookout for "jack-of-all trades" kind of students. They frequently search for students who can fill particular roles in their community, such as an oboe player for the orchestra or the upcoming leader of the Black Student Association. Having a spike shows the role you're capable of filling.

Although well-rounded students have a more difficult time standing out, that doesn't mean you should change yourself to match what you think colleges want; rather, develop smaller spikes of interests. Trying to insincerely create one specific talent or interest will ruin your application and make the process miserable for you.

In reality, students who try excessively hard to make a spike sometimes become less unique. How so? If you attempt to create a spike of interest, you may do many conventional things that won't assist you in differentiating yourself. That's why it's crucial to tackle the college application process with more subtlety--something we'll be discussing tips on how to do momentarily.

How Do Colleges Evaluate Extracurriculars?

Harvard University

Before we dive into some tips, it's important to understand how college admissions committees evaluate extracurriculars. While it might seem like these activities are totally up to personal interpretation, colleges actually have a kind of "ranking system" to figure out which ones are the most impressive. This is often called the 4 tiers of extracurriculars.

Tier 1 achievements are the most difficult to obtain, such as becoming a nationally-ranked debater or qualifying for a prestigious International Math Competition.

Tier 2 still represents excellent accomplishments, yet these are more common than those in Tier 1. Some examples of a Tier 2 achievement would be playing in the all-state band or serving as your high school's student body president.

Those who have held leadership positions in the past, like being captain of a sports team or president of a club, would typically fall into Tier 3.

Tier 4 is for participation roles, like volunteering or being a member of a club.

When attempting to improve your college application, be sure to include at least one Tier 2 activity. This will demonstrate strength and determination in your skillset.

Strategies for Developing an Admissions Spike


1. Think about your natural skills and interests

Adcoms don't have a particular extracurricular activity in mind when evaluating applicants. They're after a student body with a mix of diverse interests and skills, and that can come in a variety of shapes and forms.

Think about your strengths. Are you passionate about politics? Does programming come naturally to you? It will be easiest to develop an area of expertise in something you care about.

2. Consider your future major and career-related ambitions.

It's totally cool if you don't have your whole life planned out yet, but keeping your future goals in mind can really help you create a "spike" that's useful after high school. You don't have to know precisely what you want to do for the rest of your life while you're still a teen. Just start considering the kinds of jobs that catch your eye, and that can help you figure out your next steps.

For instance, if someone wants to be a writer, they could focus on writing and publishing short stories to develop their spike. Similarly, a person aiming to be a doctor might get involved in health advocacy efforts for underserved communities.

3. Let go of any low-reward, high-effort activities.

Many high schoolers are involved in sports and music, but not all of them invest themselves fully. These activities often demand a lot of time with little payoff; they're usually only " Tier 3 or 4" pursuits.

To have a chance at getting into a top 20 college, your list of extracurriculars should include one or two acknowledged "Tier 2" activities, as well as a highly prestigious "Tier 1" activity if possible. If you spend too much time on lesser known activities, you won't be able to build up more impressive credentials.

If you want to develop your "spike", focus on the unique activities that will help make your college application stand out. It's great if you already have involvement in music or sports, but be honest with yourself--will these things REALLY help your application? You should only continue with them if you're passionate about them; otherwise, it may not be worth your time.

4. Think about self-driven extracurriculars.

Many students think that they have to take part in a pre-existing club in order for the activity to hold value on their applications, but that's not necessarily true. In fact, admissions committees will often prefer self-initiated activities because they demonstrate student initiative and are more unique, meaning you're more likely to stick out amongst other applicants. For example, conducting an independent research project, building an app or starting a blog are all great ways to make your application stand out.

5. Consider linking together different interests.

So, we mentioned earlier that the college application process can sometimes make you seem pretty ordinary. Let's say you're really into writing, but you only do typical stuff like working on the school newspaper or entering short story competitions. Even with awesome credentials, you might just seem like "another writer." Instead, you should aim for a "contrast profile" that combines a couple of your passions you've spent time on. This approach, also known as juxtapositional depth, shows off your interdisciplinary talents and makes you stand out way more.

If you're into writing and have a passion for science, you might want to consider science writing. You can experiment or chat about real-life situations in a blog-style format. This will not only make your application pop, but it also lets you chase several interests at the same time.

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Jaden Botros

Stanford (+22 colleges)

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